Volume 2, Issue 1 p. 31-45
Advanced Review

Evolution of homeobox genes

Peter W. H. Holland

Corresponding Author

Peter W. H. Holland

Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, OX1 3PS, UK

Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, OX1 3PS, UKSearch for more papers by this author
First published: 10 September 2012
Citations: 204

Conflict of interest: The author declares that he has no conflicts of interest.


Many homeobox genes encode transcription factors with regulatory roles in animal and plant development. Homeobox genes are found in almost all eukaryotes, and have diversified into 11 gene classes and over 100 gene families in animal evolution, and 10 to 14 gene classes in plants. The largest group in animals is the ANTP class which includes the well-known Hox genes, plus other genes implicated in development including ParaHox (Cdx, Xlox, Gsx), Evx, Dlx, En, NK4, NK3, Msx, and Nanog. Genomic data suggest that the ANTP class diversified by extensive tandem duplication to generate a large array of genes, including an NK gene cluster and a hypothetical ProtoHox gene cluster that duplicated to generate Hox and ParaHox genes. Expression and functional data suggest that NK, Hox, and ParaHox gene clusters acquired distinct roles in patterning the mesoderm, nervous system, and gut. The PRD class is also diverse and includes Pax2/5/8, Pax3/7, Pax4/6, Gsc, Hesx, Otx, Otp, and Pitx genes. PRD genes are not generally arranged in ancient genomic clusters, although the Dux, Obox, and Rhox gene clusters arose in mammalian evolution as did several non-clustered PRD genes. Tandem duplication and genome duplication expanded the number of homeobox genes, possibly contributing to the evolution of developmental complexity, but homeobox gene loss must not be ignored. Evolutionary changes to homeobox gene expression have also been documented, including Hox gene expression patterns shifting in concert with segmental diversification in vertebrates and crustaceans, and deletion of a Pitx1 gene enhancer in pelvic-reduced sticklebacks. WIREs Dev Biol 2013, 2:31–45. doi: 10.1002/wdev.78

This article is categorized under:

  • Gene Expression and Transcriptional Hierarchies > Gene Networks and Genomics
  • Early Embryonic Development > Development to the Basic Body Plan
  • Comparative Development and Evolution > Body Plan Evolution